The Return: A Novel Hardcover – Sep 3 2013
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"Exploring issues from the complicated role of women in union organizing to the relationship of the Catholic Church to the working class and labor movements, he has produced a new and needed addition to contemporary labor and feminist literature."―Publishers Weekly
"[An] engaging biography."―Library Journal
About the Author
Michael Gruber is the author of The Good Son, The Book of Air and Shadows, and The Forgery of Venus. He has a PhD in marine sciences and began freelance writing while working in Washington D.C., as a policy analyst and speech writer. Since 1990, he has been a full-time writer. He is married and lives in Seattle, Washington.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
There are three primary characters (and a whole bunch of secondary ones) in THE RETURN, all of whom are complex to varying degrees and memorable. Marder kicks things off. He is a freelance book editor who has just gotten the news that he has an inoperable cranial aneurysm, a brain buddy that is going to inconveniently burst on him at an indeterminate time in the future. He doesn't tell anyone about his grim prognosis, not even his daughter Statch (Primary Number Two) or his best friend Skelly (Primary Number Three).
Instead, Marder talks vaguely about taking a long road trip and being out of touch for a bit. The road trip, it turns out, is to a remote area of Mexico where his late wife was born and raised, and where her estranged parents were murdered by a local drug lord. Marder is carrying around several buckets worth of guilt, all of which are related to his wife and her suicide, and his plan is to travel back to her homeland, scatter her ashes at her birthplace, and take out the drug lord before he becomes a member of the Choir Invisible. We learn quickly enough that Marder is capable of doing this. He has a skill set, acquired during service in Vietnam and honed in subsequent years, that is not ordinarily possessed by your garden variety book editor.
Marder begins his journey alone but is joined soon enough by Skelly, who is an enigmatic, entertaining rogue with a penchant for getting into trouble. Think of Hunter Thompson without impulse control, and you have a pretty good idea of what Skelly is like. Skelly and Marder have a long and complicated history that is gradually revealed over the course of THE RETURN via intermittent flashbacks. I will confess that I found the occasional interruptions during the course of the narrative to be vaguely irritating (your results may vary), but by the close of the book, I understood the reasons for them; even when he's bugging you, Gruber knows what he's doing. Skelly is a good guy to have around when you are moving your entire life to Mexico and there are few people you can trust, even when you have a terminal diagnosis and thus possess a somewhat different view regarding mortality.
The duo is joined in due course by Statch, who takes it upon herself to track her father down and see what he is up to and against. Statch is a near genius who is involved in an MIT post-graduate study project that is on the verge of a major breakthrough --- thanks to her --- who is also training for a world class swimming competition. She leaves both endeavors to see what Marder is doing and gets far more than she anticipated, particularly when her dad, Skelly, and a crew of rural squatters make a last stand, outgunned and undermanned, against a Mexican gun cartel that Skelly has ripped off in a rather cavalier fashion.
So how does THE RETURN end? Gruber is still lobbing surprises at the reader during the last couple of pages, but this story is much more complex than a good guys vs. bad guys tale told in shades of gray. Gruber slices up and down the strata of living and the complexity of relationships, all the while keeping the reader simultaneously entertained, thinking and cerebral. It is deep and complex, and asks to be read slowly; you'll be happy to oblige, once you get over your initial expectations over what you thought it was.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
Still, the writing is as good as ever. He has some lovely sentences such as this one, in which the protagonist's daughter (who by the way, is given her own voice) reflects on her father's unexpected and emotional performance at his wife's graveside: "She'd always thought her father was the acme of cool, but with his crack-up at the tomb and now, this pale and sweating, this trembling figure before her, she felt the axis of her life starting to go eccentric." (P297 hard cover) Now, that's really lovely!
I did turn all of the pages. Fairly rapidly. But seriously, now that he has convinced his readers that he has thoroughly mastered the thriller-style plotting, I would like to see a more character-driven novel from Michael Gruber in the future. He knows the difference between deep and superficial emotion, deep and superficial relationships, so why does he dance with the surface in this novel? The Return is really rather formulaic, despite it's odd and lovely twists, such the creation of a utopian community out of the ashes of gang warfare. Gruber himself is certainly capable of "going eccentric," of plumbing the depths of more richly imagined, (and less macho) characters. Let's hope he returns there.
Gruber manages to flesh out a large number of characters while still leaving them with enough mystery that you don't entirely figure them out until the end of the book, if then. Richard Marder is a fascinating character and protagonist. A gun-owning New York book editor who is former Air Force who served in Viet Nam along with a tough as nails Marine(Skelly).
Once Marder is diagnosed with a terminal condition (no spoiler here, it's revealed on the first page), he decides to head to the birthplace of his now-deceased wife and take care of some unfinished business. Along the way his former Marine buddy decides to join him and, unexpectedly, his daugher. The motives of all of these characters, as well as the criminals, drug lords, government and army personnel and natives at their destination in Mexico are murky and difficult to fathom. This is part of the genius of this book. There is plenty of action, and a lot of maneuvering and preparing for the larger conflict, but you are constantly wary of everyone's motives and trying to figure out who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated.
Richard Marder is magnetic personality and knowing that he is going to die is liberating and makes him plausibly fearless. Episodes from Marder and Skelly's time in Viet Nam are interspersed and add depth to the story as well as shine a light on their personalities and friendship. The conclusion of the book is both realistic and satisfying.
Michael Gruber is a talented writer and The Return is a cut above your ordinary thriller. Highly recommended.
I cannot think of any author who writes such a range of books that I have enjoyed so much. My favorites remain the early three set in Miami; I've re-read them several times and keep hoping for a new visit.
The next couple....not so much, and I could not even get through the last one. And they are all so different. It boggles my little brain that one author can handle so many different types books so well. They were well-written, I was just wasn't that interested.
But "The Return" puts him back on top of the heap. This is a wonderful book; especially if you have any interest in contemporary Mexico and/or Vietnam. (actually I am not interested at all in Vietnam, but this was still great).
My only teeny tiny complaint is that I thought the last 60 pages or so really dragged and went on too long.
But I thought he handled the ending really well, and it's all so good, what's a few exrtra words?
Good reviews are harder to write than bad ones. In short, I really, really liked this and am recommending it to friends.